Popularity strong as numbers drop

'BEETLE' ISN'T YET AT END OF THE ROAD

October 12, 1993|By Ed Brandt | Ed Brandt,Staff Writer

Old-timers call them Beetles and bugs. Youngsters call them punch buggies.

By whatever name, the remnants of 5 million Volkswagen Beetles made for the U.S. market still chug faithfully along America's highways by the thousands, drawing stares, waves, honks and sometimes laughter from passing drivers.

"Best car ever made," said Tony Horodowicz, 65, who has specialized in repairing Volkswagen Beetles since opening his auto shop at 3015 E. Joppa Road in 1972.

Mr. Horodowicz, who emigrated from Poland in 1961, is one of the few specialists left to tend to the declining Beetle population. He used to work on 10 Beetles a day, minimum. That figure is down to about a half-dozen a week. He accepts no new business and claims to be retired but still works 10 hours a day.

"That's down from 16 hours a day," he said. "I stay around because I have to take care of my customers."

He still has plenty of those, people such as Stan Koutek of Parkville, who bought his blue 1974 Beetle from Mr. Horodowicz in 1981 for $1,500.

"It had a new engine then, and Tony has put in two since," he said. "My car has about 340,000 miles on it, and it's still going strong. I like it because it's easy to maintain. Something happens, Tony fixes. Simple as that."

Volkswagen -- the literal translation is People's Car -- called its precocious child Project 12 when the design went on the drawing board under the guiding hand of Ferdinand Porsche in the early 1930s. The 1936 prototype was called Type 1. It is still called that in VW boardrooms.

Adolf Hitler, who decreed superhighways and a car all Germans could afford when he became chancellor in 1933, called it his "Strength Through Joy" auto.

In the United States, it became the Beetle, or bug. Youngsters call the durable imports punch buggies, according to Joe Kammerer of Anderson VW in Baltimore.

"A kid sees a Beetle on the road, says 'punch buggy!' and punches the kid next to him. Then he says real quick, 'No punch back!' ," said Mr. Kammerer, who bought a 1973 Beetle recently for $500 and plans to restore it himself.

Purple Beetles have been named "Barney Cars" in honor of you know who.

"Imagine a car that someone paid $1,000 for new 40 years ago that's still on the road," said Mr. Horodowicz, who owns seven Beetles. "They're economical to run and easy to fix. I sold one engine five times, and it still works."

Mr. Horodowicz has no problem finding spare parts.

"I stocked up on them," he said. "When I heard that VW was going to discontinue a part, I just bought whatever they had left."

Desmond Glynn, who repairs Beetles at his shop at Old Harford Road and Taylor Avenue, said, "Rust is the big problem with Beetles, because they didn't have the body protection then that cars have now.

"But if you change the oil every 2,000 miles and keep the valves and timing adjusted, a Beetle engine will easily last 100,000 miles."

Mr. Glynn, who came from Galway, Ireland, in 1962, worked with Mr. Horodowicz at the now-defunct Maryland Volkswagen in the early 1960s. He started his own business 10 years ago.

"It's the most practical car ever made," said Mr. Glynn. "Kids love them and like to work on them themselves. I used to rebuild three engines a week, but now I handle maybe a half-dozen repairs a week, tops, and sometimes none. Sometimes they rust out so badly they have to be junked, so the number on the road is going down."

No one will even guess how many Beetles are still on U.S. roads.

"I have no idea," said Jim Kamradt, a Volkswagen official in Auburn Hills, Mich. Nor do Mr. Horodowicz or Mr. Glynn, but they agree that the number is dwindling.

Volkswagen stopped making Beetles for the U.S. market in 1979, when the last convertible, which sold for $11,000, rolled off the line in Wolfsburg, Germany.

"Sales were going down, and the company decided it was going to be too expensive to retool to meet U.S. crash standards that were coming in 1980," said Mr. Kamradt, adding that Beetles are still made in Mexico, but don't meet U.S. pollution and crash standards.

The American public didn't know it in 1949, but the two Beetles that arrived for sale that year were the initial shots fired in a revolution in U.S. car-buying habits. The four-cylinder, 36-horsepower car was the first high-mileage import, getting 33 miles per gallon at a time when American cars got 17 mpg or less. And they were cheap. The asking price was $800.

Two were sold in 1949, then 270 in 1950. In 1966, the peak year, more than 427,000 Volkswagens of all types were sold in the United States.

The Beetle had its detractors. A car magazine called it "ugly" and "strange." And it has its peculiarities.

Semaphore arms on the early models popped out to signal a turn. The heater was dysfunctional, there was no fuel gauge until the 1962 model, and there was a hole for a starter crank, an anachronism eliminated in the 1950 models. Most unusual, however, was an air-cooled engine in the rear and a fuel tank under the hood.

"The engine was in the rear to eliminate the long drive train," VW's Mr. Kamradt explained. "It was air-cooled because few people in Germany had garages, and water-cooled engines tended to freeze up."

Despite its peculiarities, public affection for the Beetle continues as the 45th anniversary of the car's U.S. debut approaches.

Twice a year, members of the Vintage Volkswagen Club of America grind their Beetles' gears into place, hunch over their steering wheels and make their clattering way to Manassas, Va., jTC where they kick tires, slam doors and talk Beetle talk.

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